How (Other) People Change: Walking with Loved Ones Through Five Stages

How (Other) People Change

Am I helping or hurting? Aiding or enabling?

Parents, friends, and church family often find themselves in this precarious position. Someone we know and love is in sin’s grip. We agonize over whether the help we might offer will help them find freedom, or just drive them further away.

We know that love will not allow us to simply ignore the situation. Scripture calls Christians to bear one another’s burdens through the chaos and mess of life, especially the darkest seasons (see Galatians 6:2, Colossians 3:13, 1 Peter 4:10, and others). We are called to do so with caution and care, in such a way that we are not pulled down into temptation ourselves (Galatians 6:1), but also persistently calling others to change (Galatians 6:5).

But what does that mean practically? Can we even tell when our words or actions are likely to help in the fight against sin or unintentionally enable it somehow?

What You Cannot Do

First, some caveats. While you will not find the phrase “Stages of Change” anywhere in Scripture, I want to introduce you to a tested and popular paradigm used among counselors around the world, because it has been helpful to me personally as a pastor, counselor, and Christian. It’s called “Prochaska & DiClemente’s Stages of Change Model (1983).”

Now, it must be said from the outset that the Holy Spirit can and does work how he wills. He can cause hearts and minds to change in an instant. He need not follow a particular pattern, or adopt any set of steps or stages. He is free to change you or someone you love when and how he chooses to. And if he withholds change, nothing you or I might do will make a difference, however many times a counseling strategy has worked before.

It must also be stated up front that you are not responsible for someone else’s change. That’s between them and God (Galatians 6:4–5). However, you are responsible to love them (John 13:34–35) as a brother or sister in Christ, including doing everything in your power to challenge and encourage them to walk in line with the gospel (Galatians 2:14).

With those things in mind, here are five typical stages of change, with counsel for what you can do or pray for someone at each stage.

Stage 1: Pre-contemplation

At this stage, people aren’t even thinking about change yet. Whatever sinful behavior they are engaged in, they are enjoying it enough that the cost of surrender and change seems too high. When someone is in this stage, we should set good, healthy boundaries to protect ourselves and others. We cannot expect them not to sin when they see no reason to change. If they violate these boundaries, we establish and administer consistent consequences.

We see this kind of boundary in 1 Corinthians 5 when the apostle Paul exhorts believers to separate themselves from an unrepentant sexual sinner (1 Corinthians 5:1–5). Paul’s counsel was clear: a boundary (you cannot be a part of the Christian community) and a consequence (you will be given over to the devil) with a purpose (that your soul will be saved in the day of the Lord). The church wanted the man to change and be reconciled, but to accomplish that they had to remove him from fellowship, set a clear boundary, and warn him about the terrible consequences of unrepentant sin.

How can we help at this stage?

Have conversations with them and explain what you are seeing. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes not. Most of the time when they are in this stage, they just don’t care. Nonetheless, honest and open communication about the sin you see is key. How is it negatively impacting them or others? What would you like to see instead? What are the consequences they can expect if they continue down the current path? This stage can be especially difficult for two reasons.

First, if you are the one suggesting change, it’s likely that you are in a different stage than they are in your own battle with sin. The distance between you in maturity and godliness may create unhealthy expectations in you or bitter resentment in them. So we often wear ourselves out trying to force others to change when, frankly, they don’t want it. At this stage people may want your money, or your time, or your pity, or your approval, or something else, but what they don’t want is change. If your friend or loved one isn’t, on their own, beginning to think through why they should make a change in the first place, all your persuasive arguments and valuable resources are likely to be ineffective.

Second, when helpers begin to feel like we are spinning our wheels — when change doesn’t come immediately or quickly — we begin to be punitive. There’s a subtle difference here. We can subtly move from thinking about what is best for the person to trying to make them pay for what they’ve done to us. When we do, we cross the line from consequence to punishment.

How can we pray at this stage?

When someone has not even acknowledged the need for change, we pray down heaven that the Lord through the Holy Spirit will open their eyes and convict their conscience (John 16:8). It’s usually best to keep these prayers confidential. Letting someone know that you are begging God to change them when they see no need for change in the first place is more likely to cement their wayward steps than to change their course.

Stage 2: Contemplation

At this stage, people actually begin to think about change. That is, it is now on their radar that change might be worth the work. They are not yet convinced that change is necessary, but they are willing to consider it. When someone is in this stage, we can help them weigh the proverbial list of pros and cons to move them toward fuller repentance.

How can we help at this stage?

Honesty. Being honest (almost brutally so) in this stage pays dividends later. We get into trouble when we oversell the pros and undersell the cons. If we are not willing to be honest about the cost of change, then we will lose credibility. We begin to look like a “snake oil salesman” — promoting the wonders of a miracle cure, while downplaying any side effects.

Instead we must be like the physician who tells his patient, “This may be painful, but it’s worth all the pain.” Change typically requires pain. Christians understand and embrace this as much as anyone. Our most fundamental change came through excruciating pain and at great cost (Romans 6:23; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 10:10; 1 Peter 3:18).

How can we pray at this stage?

At this point, we can pray for God to grow the seeds of conviction in their hearts, and that he would grant us patience and humility while we wait. It’s so hard not to try and seize the reins of control — to restrain ourselves from trying to craft the perfect sales pitch or find “fail-proof” strategies. Whether or not God gives our loved one the ability to change, confessing his sovereignty and our helplessness is a rich blessing in the process. Rest in his power and goodness, for he is the one who is able to save, not us (Isaiah 12:1–2).

Stage 3: Preparation

At this stage, people are persuaded that change is necessary, but have yet to actually achieve it. The length of this stage varies. Sometimes people want to implement change immediately, other times people need more time. Our goal in this stage is to help them make a plan for what change will look like, while not getting bogged down in or overwhelming them with too many details.

How can we help at this stage?

Help them think through what life might look like in the near future and the more distant future. Will they have to go through some sort of treatment? Are there new routines that need to be created? A year from now, when change has settled into habit, what will be the triggers to backslide? How do they avoid them? Try to plan with some detail, yet know that there is no way to forecast everything. Know that things will not end up exactly like you planned them.

The biggest mistakes people make at this stage are to over-prepare and get overwhelmed, or to skip this stage altogether and make no preparations at all. We are not trying to build the perfect plan; we’re simply trying to find a plan that works.

How can we pray at this stage?

At this stage, we ask God for wisdom. We can’t possibly predict every impediment that may hinder the path to change; however, we want God to help us foresee as much as we can. Knowing that our plans come to nothing without the blessings of the Lord (Luke 12:13–21), we want to plead for Spirit-empowered discernment illuminated by God’s word. We need wisdom to help our loved ones make plans and preparations for the road ahead (Proverbs 6:6–11).

Stage 4: Action

At this stage, people begin the actual process of change. In some cases, Stages 2–4 move quickly. There are times where people are convicted about something and simply decide to change, but those instances are more rare. Usually people need to set a point in time when they know new behavior will begin. This is the main reason New Year’s resolutions are so popular. The beginning of another year offers a clear starting point which makes change easier to track.

How can we help at this stage?

We now take on the role of encouragement. Our friend or family member will need hope and comfort and strength when the road is hard. The cost of change is high, so we should not be surprised when people begin to feel discouraged. It helps to come alongside them and say, We knew this was coming and we prepared for it.

This is also the stage where we begin to relax the boundaries we set in Stage 1. Where there were appropriate consequences for bad decisions, now there should be appropriate rewards for positive decisions. As Ligon Duncan says, “It is in the context of covenant obedience that covenant blessings abound.” Even the Lord recognizes that we fragile and frail people need encouragement and rewards for our hard work (Luke 19:11–19).

How can we pray at this stage?

At this stage, we ask God for the gifts of compassion and encouragement. On the one hand, we want to ask for energy to support our loved ones when they are feeling overwhelmed, having the spiritual and emotional strength to listen well and bear their heavier burdens with them. At the same time, we want to consistently remind them of the incredible resources they have in Christ and the need for them to increasingly take responsibility for their own maturity and growth (Philippians 2:12–13), of course in the context of healthy Christian community.

Stage 5: Maintenance

At this stage, people strive to move from a novel act to an engrained habit. This is the longest stage, and the one with the highest likelihood of relapse. It can take anywhere from six weeks to five years depending on a variety of factors.

How can we help at this stage?

Change is not only difficult to achieve, but perhaps even more difficult to maintain. People will need ongoing encouragement. Usually around this time, at the six-week mark or so, we begin to move on with our lives. We assume the change has happened now. This often leaves those struggling to implement change suddenly alone and overwhelmed.

A threshold exists just before change becomes habit where perseverance feels impossible. The amount of effort it takes to continue a new behavior just doesn’t seem as worth it anymore. The economy of change seems bankrupt. That makes plans and celebrations so important. As our loved ones continue to hit predetermined milestones, we need to continue to notice and rejoice. Not every positive day has to be a party, but simple words of recognition and celebration are powerful tools toward long-lasting change.

Giving accolades, however, is of little value without our continued commitment to dedicated prayer. As we remind ourselves daily to be praying for them, more diligent in our checking on them, we will be more gracious in our listening to them, and we will be more exuberant in celebrating God’s grace with them.

How can we pray at this stage?

To that end, our prayers at this stage begin to focus on sustaining grace — the grace needed to overcome the inevitable difficulties that are unforeseen. We recognize that we cannot perfectly predict or plan for the future. If our loved one is to persevere, it is going to take the strength and wisdom and help of an unflappable God (Psalms 55:22).

Change Is Always Hard

Change is hard. For everyone involved. Parents are a wreck watching their children choose sex, drugs, or alcohol over the eternal joy of the gospel. Friends are horribly guilt-ridden watching their friend descend on a path of self-destruction rather than walking the way of life. Churches are confused and distressed as professing believers openly choose deadly sin above their loving Savior.

All of them want to know what it really means — practically in the moment — to help someone else change. Sometimes we bear patiently with a brother or sister, being willing to overlook an offense. Other times, we need to lovingly rebuke them and hold them accountable. Which is it this time? Am I aiding or enabling?

It’s not always easy to tell. But this framework may help you assess when someone is genuinely interested in being different and when they just want you to help them avoid the latest consequences for their bad decisions. It’s not inerrant, but as a pastor and counselor, it has been invaluable.

The good news is that the exhausting, slow, day-to-day effort of seeing someone through difficult change cannot compete with the refreshing moment-by-moment grace of God’s Spirit in the process. With God’s help, we may just find ourselves gifted and in a position to have a positive impact on our loved ones that will last forever.

Where to Bring Your Broken Heart

Where to Bring Your Broken Heart

“Help. My heart is broken.”

This is one of the most common refrains in my counseling ministry. There are many causes: love unrequited, jobs lost, dreams quashed, spouses and children taken. No matter its roots, the pain is unbearably similar for its sufferers. And the question that hangs over it all is this: “Now what?”

Weep Well

Grief is an act as well as a feeling. When hearts are broken, cheeks should be wet. I wish it weren’t true, but it is. There is something about weeping that is incredibly scary. It’s a vulnerable act that floods our thoughts and feelings, leaving us fatigued. Little wonder then that people avoid it like the plague, or feel that they need to make an excuse for it.

But Scripture itself does not take such a negative view on mourning. God does not tell his children to “dry it up!” Rather, God stores our tears in his bottle (Psalm 56:8). In an ancient, arid land where bottles were not a dime a dozen, only precious things were kept in bottles. Even more, God himself weeps and makes no apology for it (Luke 19:41–44; John 11:35). When God finds his heart hurting, his cheeks are not dry, and you should not be ashamed if yours aren’t either.

It’s not enough to merely give our emotions vent; they need to be shepherded (Psalm 120:1; 130:1). Christians are not merely those who weep, but those who weep well. It is not true that our stress, sadness, anger, and negative emotions just need an emotional outlet to release the pressure. This “hydraulic” view of the affections often does more harm than good — before we know it, we can barely put our emotional kettle on the burner before the whistle begins to wail for relief.

Instead, the key is to marry an emotional outlet with hope. This does not mean that we always, at every single moment, need to sustain a conscious feeling of hope alongside our grief — God makes room in Scripture for passages like Psalm 88 and Job 3. He does not ask the believer to take a Pollyanna view of the believing life. But Paul reminds the Thessalonians that their grief is different from a mere emotional outpour (1 Thessalonians 4:13). It is grounded in the truth of the gospel which is the spring of hope and life itself (Romans 15:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:14–17). Gospel hope is the foundation of healthy grief. We may not always see it or focus on it, but it is there, and it will rise again (Psalm 51:12).

Go to Prayer

Grief needs prayer. It is the communion of our souls with their Maker and Sustainer. The Psalter is not just a collection of ditties for believers but a living example of the prayers of the faithful. Praying isn’t about changing God’s mind but submitting the most earnest desires of our hearts to him, and trusting his stewardship with them, even when those desires are aborted.

Christ calls out through prayer in his most desperate hour (Matthew 26:36–39). And Paul tells us that even when we don’t know how to pray as we ought, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, mending our prayers on the way up (Romans 8:26). There is something about prayer, about giving unto our Lord those thoughts and feelings which are most intimate, that makes our hearts more pliable to the comfort that only the gospel brings.

God loves to hear the raw, unscripted prayers of his children’s hearts (Psalm 62:8). But prayer is more than just an emotional dump. Our prayers are prayers to a God who has revealed himself and provided for us in his word. In grief, our prayers and our souls will benefit by feeding on God’s word.

Meditating on Scripture forces our hearts to move beyond ourselves and think on the grand scope of God’s redemptive work for his people (Colossians 1:13–14). It gives hope where otherwise there may be none (John 14:27; Romans 8:31–39; Hebrews 13:6; James 1:2). It puts our grief in perspective, reminding us that our heartache is but a tiny glimpse of the pain experienced by God at the cross (Matthew 27:46) — a suffering that he entered into willingly (John 10:18), despising the cost of shame for the joy of redeeming a people (Hebrews 12:2).

Go to Rest

Grief is exhausting. Physically and emotionally, we find ourselves worn out. A persistent and terrible fog seems to descend on our minds and bodies making it hard even to breathe at times like these. Those in grief need rest. More than just physical rest (though often no less), we need spiritual rest. It is in these moments that the words of our Lord seem sweeter than honey:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30)

Resting in Jesus often means intentionally disengaging from the busyness of the world. Choosing to focus what little emotional energy we have on Kingdom purposes helps provide a peace that mere logic cannot explain (Philippians 4:4–9).

Go to Friends

Grief isn’t private. It’s often difficult and humiliating to let someone in on the depths of our pain, but God loves his people too much to let your suffering begin and end with you. Keeping your grief hidden robs the church of our ability to have the unbelievable joy of Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

All people at all times do not need to be clued into the depth of the darkness in which you find yourself, but allowing others to walk beside you in your time of distress is a way of serving them, while also allowing them to serve you. It’s a reminder that the life of a pilgrim in this fallen world is far from rose-colored and, someday, when the current trial is behind you, the church will get the benefit of witnessing God’s tangible faithfulness to you.

All too often, Satan uses our grief to indulge our desire to isolate, not only personally but corporately. Gathering for worship just feels like a chore too difficult to manage. When we grieve, it may be difficult to sing, pray, or concentrate in worship. It may feel as if the Lord’s Supper is a hollow activity. But worship is the ventilator of our spirits — keeping us alive when all else seems to fail. Bit by bit, even when we don’t appreciate it, worship is consoling our grief and nurturing our souls back to health.

Weep and Draw Near

In a world where sin infects and impacts all things, it is impossible for believers to make it through without hearts that break. But we have a God who is not silent at such times. He knows, because he has walked in our shoes (Hebrews 4:15). He has felt the terrible pangs of a broken heart. And at such times, he does not tell us to shut up and go away, but rather to weep, draw near to him, and rejoice in him.

Are Your Relational Problems Inherited?

Are Your Relational Problems Inherited?

Jackson, Mississippi has two types of homes: those that have foundation issues and those that are waiting for their owners to find out they have foundation issues.

We lived in one of the former for years. The house slanted so severely that if a round object of any type was put on the floor, it would race from one side of the room to the other. We constantly employed paint and mortar to remove the visual reminders of the foundation problems we had. But no matter how hard we tried, the cracks returned. The only way to get them remedied was to do significant work to the faulty foundation.

Similarly, when people come from unhealthy homes, they can come with foundational issues. Ones which can cause problems throughout life if they are not dealt with in a healthy manner. Fortunately, we have the balm of the gospel which can overcome any earthly deficit (1 Corinthians 1:26–31).

Foundation Flaws

In order to apply God’s word with skill and wisdom, we should think carefully about the sorts of “foundation” issues that can cause troubles in other areas of life. Wherever there is sin, Christ can give forgiveness (1 John 1:9); wherever our thoughts are twisted, Christ can give us wisdom (James 1:5); wherever there is weakness and brokenness, Christ gives his perfect power (2 Corinthians 12:9). So, as we look to Christ to supply our every need (Philippians 4:19), what sort of “foundation” issues are most common?

1. Attachment

One of the most common issues is the ability to have a healthy level of attachment. Healthy attachment is where we know how to meet other people’s needs and have our own needs met as well. It means we are willing to sacrifice even when our own satisfaction seems nowhere on the horizon (Matthew 16:24), yet we are also able to honestly speak up about our own unmet desires.

Unhealthy attachment comes in two forms. In the first, it believes that all needs are met by others and therefore clings desperately to them. This sort of codependent attachment leans too heavily on others for emotional protection and security, and tries to bear the burden of other people’s emotional weight, even when it’s not their responsibility. Life experiences are filtered through the lens of being responsible for others’ needs and having others be responsible for their needs. But because it’s impossible to be responsible for someone else’s emotional world, all parties end up feeling exhausted.

In the second type of unhealthy attachment, people believe that others are a source of pain and rarely, if ever, are able to reliably meet needs. If those in the first category are over-dependent on others, those in this category are over-isolated. They avoid vulnerability like the plague because it so seldom leads to anything but agony. For them, islands of isolation are better than communities of pain, making intimate emotional experiences both fleeting and rare. They cannot respond to others’ needs because they are so preoccupied with keeping themselves from getting hurt. Sacrifice is a foreign concept, and intimacy begins to dry up.

2. Conflict

The next most common set of issues I see from those that come from an unhealthy family background are those that revolve around conflict resolution. Conflict happens in all relationships — even the apostles had it (Galatians 2:11–14)! But still, sometimes conflict reveals more than we want to see in ourselves. Again, let me paint two opposite poles.

On the one hand, there are those that are ardent conflict avoiders. Conflict has either been incredibly scary in their family of origin, or they’ve never seen it done at all. To be in conflict at all feels like death, so they avoid it at all costs. When forced to have conflict because they can no longer run away, wounds — weeks, months, sometimes even years old — come pouring out all at once, sometimes adding more pain to an already painful situation.

Then there are conflict provokers. For some, chaos simply feels like home. When it isn’t present, they feel like they are just waiting for the other shoe to drop — so they often make it drop on their own terms. For others, they are so afraid that something might get swept under the rug that they feel driven to conflict about any minor relational infraction. The ability to overlook sin and forgive (Proverbs 19:11) without giving it the slow-motion play-by-play treatment only seems like deception.

3. Boundaries

Giving and receiving the word “no” is another skill that people often inherit from their family of origin. Some families treat boundaries like four-letter words — boundaries are not clearly defined or understood, causing confusion and frustration in place of healthy freedom within clear borders. Again, this foundation flaw can split in two directions.

Some are too flexible, allowing others to run over reasonable boundaries and push them into relationships and activities that are neither healthy nor sanctifying. Without the structure and authority to say “no” to some things, their energies are directed not by themselves or kingdom purposes — for example, saying “no” to an extra hour of work in order to be present at the dinner table — but by the people around them.

On the other hand, others are too rigid, breaking off relationship at the slightest hint of disagreement, destroying relationships that otherwise would be helpful. Their boundaries are too tall and too wide. If it doesn’t fit their plans, the answer is automatically “no.” There is no category for sacrificing plans and structure in order to serve others. There is no flexibility to turn the other cheek or walk the extra mile when called by the Lord to do so (Matthew 5:38–42).

Foundation Repair

While all three of these patterns may be problematic, none of them is fatal. Why? Because the love of God is greater than all of these. Christ’s love — not our flawed families — controls us (2 Corinthians 5:14). Christ does not forsake those with flawed family foundations. In fact, this is often where he shows grace most powerfully (2 Corinthians 12:9).

1. Hope for Attachment

Perhaps you feel you can never be whole on your own — if there’s any hope for a happy life, it depends on the people around you. This is a lie. As much as God loves to give us his grace through the people around us, he does not leave us dependent on them for the grace we need. Indeed, even when everyone around us fails us, we are not alone. We always have Christ’s grace, the Father’s love, and fellowship with the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14).

Perhaps, on the other hand, you fear that vulnerability is just the prelude to betrayal. Remember that God knows us more fully than we even know ourselves, and still, rather than rejecting us, he chose to send his most precious Son to die for us that we might be his.

2. Peace in Conflict

And for those that struggle with conflict, they too can find rest in the gospel. While the Christian life is full of conflict (John 15:19), Christ gives us his peace through his Spirit, the Great Comforter (John 14:27). Timidity and anxiety in the face of conflict may give way to confident praises, as we wait for the day when peace will reign in all creation and conflict will be a matter for history books (Isaiah 2:4).

And for those who find conflict normal, or even comforting, we should show them that the fruit of the indwelling Spirit will yield a soul-soothing peace (Galatians 5:22–23), not just on the last day, but here and now. They too have the ability to find comfort in the calm.

3. Love in Boundaries

Lastly, for those for whom “no” feels like a sort of personal assault, the gospel frees us to make wise and loving decisions about gospel resources. Those resources include our time, our money, and our affections. Our commitments, relationships, and energies are not in the control of those around us; they’re not even in our own hands to control. Rather, everything belongs to Christ and must be used to glorify him (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Our choices should enable us to focus outward more and more on Christ’s kingdom, serving others skillfully so that the great Servant and King may be made manifest in us (Philippians 2:3–11).

A Father Who Gives and Gives

In the end, none of us comes from perfect families, however healthy they might be. Always, our goal should be to apply the balm of the gospel to our relationships, while looking for the evidence of its fruit. Where there are strengths, you lean into them while thanking God for his goodness. And where there are weaknesses, you bring them to the cross and wait expectantly for Christ to work there, too.

God is not stingy with his mercy, because he wants to get glory through our gratitude, awe, and dependence on his mercy (Romans 15:9). This is where our hope lies: not in perfect family origins, but in the perfect Father who gives us the grace we need to follow him.

Die to Yourself Without Losing Yourself

Die to Yourself Without Losing Yourself

Self-sacrifice can be exhausting. It can be painful, arduous, and largely thankless. Moreover, no shortage of people stand ready to take advantage of our willingness to serve. Nonetheless, few messages are more consistent in the New Testament than Christians being known for our sacrificial spirit (Romans 12:10).

A picture intrinsic to our sacrifice reflects the nature of Christ (John 13:34). In fact, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul exhorts us to “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). How do we do this and not lose ourselves? In other words, is it possible to be self-sacrificing without being self-obliterating?

1. Anchor Your Worth in God

First, in order to be confidently sacrificial, we must rest assuredly in our true value. This may seem like therapeutic Christianese at first glance, but hear me out. Oftentimes people are sacrificial in order to feel valuable — either internally (to themselves) or externally (to the world and to God). But we can never do enough to fill the giant void that the craving for self-worth creates. While we may have moments when our sacrifice is emotionally rewarding, those moments are fleeting and insufficient. We will inevitably find ourselves empty and hurt.

On the other hand, if we allow God to shape and define our worth, we are free to empty ourselves without the fear of losing ourselves. My value comes not finally from what I bring to the table, but from the one who brought me there.

God has made me in his image, a gift unique to humankind throughout all of creation (Genesis 1:26–28). More than that, he has seen me — the very real, very selfish, sinful me. He’s even seen the me that I haven’t seen yet because he knows every single thought I will ever think and every action I will ever take (Psalm 139:1–6).

My thoughts and actions habitually betray my lack of love and trust, and yet God willingly gave up that which he loved most in order that I might be his (John 3:16) — not just some opportunity that I might be his, but the certainty that I would be his and become a part of his family, a fellow heir with Christ (Romans 8:16–17).

That is the place — the place of God’s own self-sacrifice — where I find my real value. And knowing that God grounds my salvation in his own heart to be self-sacrificial is the foundation for my own self-sacrifice.

2. Draw Your Energy from God

Second, we must know from where the energy to be self-sacrificing comes. Too often we strive for self-denial in our own strength. But trusting in ourselves to deny ourselves is an oxymoron. Self-sacrifice is not refreshing to the ego, but often feels like death. And doubly so when our sacrifice seems to be in vain.

While our own effort is vitally important, it is empty without the catalyzing of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). Counting others more significant than ourselves is an activity that starts with, is borne along by, and finds its fulfillment in the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, sacrifice which doesn’t start with Spirit-dependent prayer and trust should not be expected to yield spiritual satisfaction.

It is often when we find ourselves at the end of our own abilities that God’s grace in us superabounds (Ephesians 3:14–21). So, let us not too quickly withdraw when we find ourselves gassed in the marathon of lifelong sacrifice, but rather redouble our efforts through God’s word and prayer. Through our perseverance, God’s grace may be made more apparent to the world and ourselves.

3. Sacrifice Yourself for God

Third, we need to understand our own heart when it comes to self-sacrifice. Too often our self-denial is little more than window dressing on our desire to please people or control them. When it fails to accomplish these goals, we feel hurt. We may even blame God (which is always sin).

What makes this even more complicated is that even rightly intended motivations are often wrongly prioritized. Wanting someone to be helped, get better, or feel more loved becomes the primary focus, not bringing honor to Jesus (Colossians 3:17). And when motivations, even good ones, get top billing over the glory of God, we are setting ourselves up for the sort of disappointment that leads to weariness in well-doing (Galatians 6:9).

4. Set Boundaries with God’s Help

Lastly, we have biblical grounds for proper boundaries. Not every relationship that requires self-sacrifice is in itself sustainable. If the relationship is with someone who makes a profession of faith, then they too are required to show love and respect, as well as sacrifice (Ephesians 4:25–32). When Christian relationships habitually lack the fruit of Christian maturity, it may be time to reassess our involvement (Romans 16:17–18). That should not end our acts of self-denial, but rather refocus them in areas where fruit seems to be more forthcoming through the leading of the Spirit.

It also doesn’t necessarily mean the death of those relationships. Paul, for example, was frustrated with the lack of maturity in John Mark, and refused to let him go on one of his missionary journeys (Acts 15:37–40). But later Paul counted him as invaluable to his ministry (2 Timothy 4:11).

It is a little trickier when exercising appropriate boundaries with non-believers. On the one hand, we are told to go the extra mile — to sacrifice above what anyone would expect — in order that the aroma of God may be perceived in us (Matthew 5:38–42). We reflect something almost unspeakably beautiful in the grace, mercy, and love of Christ as we lay down our lives not just for friends and family, but also for those who would consider themselves our enemies (Romans 5:8–10).

On the other hand, while we are to be poured out, we are not to be unwisely used up. Times come when we must cut ourselves off from those outside the body of Christ (2 Corinthians 6:14–18; Titus 3:10; 2 Timothy 3:1–9). The keys seem to be sanctification and glory. If the relationship is not helping in our own sanctification and bringing glory to Christ, then it is time to reevaluate.

That said, do not be hasty in boundary-making. It is easy to get hurt, scared, or offended and decide that a relationship must come to an end. Sometimes our sanctification and God’s glory take a long, tortuous route. Let the Holy Spirit guide you through Bible-soaked prayer over this relationship. Making a boundary too quickly can be just as detrimental as not making one at all.

Self-sacrifice is painful, problematic, and peculiar, but it is part and parcel to the Christian life. Understanding where our value, energy, motivation, and even boundaries come from helps us to ground our giving in the grace of God, which is the one place where we will never find ourselves completely empty.

Are Christians Too Intentional in Dating?

Are Christians Too Intentional in Dating?

A coffee shop near the university — that’s where our story started.

I can remember, in vivid detail, walking into that familiar cafe with absolutely no clue I was about to meet her. As I stepped in, I saw a beautiful young woman, who I had never seen before, sitting on a couch. My heart beat faster. An ordinary night instantly transformed into “the rest of my life.” That was our beginning, seventeen years ago.

Beginnings are important. The Bible makes this abundantly clear. Again and again, the people of God remember their origins. In her histories (1 Samuel 12:8; 2 Kings 17:36), in her poetry (Psalm 81:4–10), and in her prophecies (Daniel 9:15; Amos 3:1) God retells the story of creating a nation for himself. Why is this rehearsed so often? Because remembering our past helps us make it through our present while we anticipate our future (Hebrews 11:24–26).

Couples who are just entering that beginning stage are a sight to behold. They often cannot get enough of each other. Even the most grounded men and women can be brought to a giddy, distracted mess. But as a pastor and counselor, I see two common problems in those happily in the midst of this infatuation-infused season of attraction.

Hyper-Intentional Beginnings

Some, often good-intentioned, end up being overly intentional. They miss the beauty of a fragile, uncertain beginning, because they’re chasing the phantom of a certain future. Every communication is diligently parsed, and every action painstakingly analyzed. I more easily fell into this flawed quest to determine the long-term viability of a relationship — immediately asking questions about families of origin, personality, and character.

In the end, there is no test like the test of time. Be it six months, twelve months, eighteen months, or even sometimes longer, things will reveal themselves. In the meantime, people can become so fixated on analysis and progress that they don’t take the time to take in the excitement and wonder of this unique moment in a relationship.

It’s no wonder why. Being in love is a very vulnerable act, and having one’s heart broken is an incredibly painful experience. But much like the Israelites who were too busy grumbling about their accommodations to take in the awesome sight of God leading them out of slavery, men and women can be so busy trying to test the strength of a relationship that they miss the awesome experience of a beautiful beginning. How might the grumbling wilderness generation have acted if they had known that the exodus would be rehearsed throughout Scripture more than thirty different times as a witness to God’s love for his people?

Don’t get me wrong, the exodus event is not about you and your dreamy significant other; it’s about God redeeming his people. Yet there are principles in that story about the beauty of beginnings, especially the beginnings God himself brings into our lives.

Less-Intentional Beginnings

On the opposite side of those that are too intentional are those that are not intentional enough. They flit from relationship to relationship, chasing the infatuation high. Each interaction is just one more in a string of experiences intent, consciously or unconsciously, on pursuing a personal sense of euphoria, with no regard for its longevity or for who might get hurt along the way. If they cannot cry out with the woman of Song of Solomon, “I am sick with love!” (Song 2:5), then they want no part of the relationship. They do not think about what makes love likely to last, or how they could better care for the person they are with, but simply seek a neurochemical re-up on their drug of choice.

As with the first problem, the reasons for this are hardly mysterious. Infatuation feels amazing. More than that, infatuation is given to us by God — just read Song of Solomon. There’s no rebuke for the romantic miracle of true love. It is the relational superglue that will help love hold fast when the stressors of life come. But like all things, we take that which is meant by God as a gift — the incredible and invigorating feeling of falling in love — and try to manufacture it in our own ways. We make it an idol.

It might surprise you to learn that in my role as a pastor and counselor, I actually see more of the former than the latter. I don’t think this is true in our culture broadly, but as Christians, I think we have reacted against the emotion-driven milieu in which we live, and sometimes swung too far. We have overvalued systems for determining a relationship’s worth and potential, such that by the time it gets the “Godly Spouse Material” seal of approval, the “you are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you” (Song 4:7) season has already begun to pass us by.

Just the Beginning

The good news is that the road between these two ditches is actually pretty wide. First, learn to enjoy the moments as they come. This isn’t a license to be naïve, but to put aside the constant craving to know if the person you are dating is your future spouse, and just enjoy getting to know each other.

Second, make some monuments along the way. Remember that first movie? Hold on to the tickets. Or that song that you danced to? Save it in a special playlist. Memorials functioned to help Israel remember God’s graciousness, especially when she later encountered trial, and they can do the same for you. Seeing that ticket or hearing that song later, when life has become difficult, can help remind you of that electrifying love you have enjoyed together.

Third, remember who is really in control. You both can be fooled — thought this was your future spouse and were wrong — and surprised — didn’t think it had a chance and it turns out to be your soulmate — even if you are being as discerning as possible. So, let your peace come from the place where you can genuinely find rest: the loving will of a gracious Father. Not from your own ability to perfectly predict or plan the future.

Perfect Peace for Imperfect Parents

Perfect Peace for Imperfect Parents

Failure isn’t an option in parenting. It’s an inevitability.

It’s nearly impossible to count the number of angst-ridden parents I’ve sat across in a counseling room. They wring their hands as they worry that they’ve ruined poor little Johnny or Jane. Frantic, they wade through the record of wrongs they’ve committed against their child over the years. Harsh words, unkind thoughts, and rash actions all make it on the list of parenthood infamy. What should we make of our mistakes in what is one of the most important roles God has charged us with? My answer: Not much.

Let’s be clear on one thing first: I’m not saying that we don’t let our failures affect us. The hurt, fear, anger, and sadness of our little ones — caused by our parental malfunctions — should break our hearts. This is not celebratory “failurism.” Our missteps cause genuine pain, and that pain needs to be listened to, understood, repented of, and — to the best of our ability — prevented in the future.

But we must remember: We are sinners tasked with parenting fellow sinners. Sin affects every relationship we have. From the most intimate of family members to random strangers, there’s no relationship on earth where sin doesn’t have its sway. That’s Paul’s testimony in Romans 7 where he laments that though he would do good, the good he wants to do he doesn’t do, and the evil that he wants to quit he finds himself continuing to do (Romans 7:18–19).

Three Pressures to Be Perfect

If failure is pervasive, then why do so many parents live in fear of it?

1. Our culture no longer has a biblical view of who we are as parents.

The spiritual component of our identities has long been replaced with the nature/nurture model of man. It is not uncommon to read or hear a discussion about how a person’s upbringing (nurture) is supposed to shoulder most the blame for whatever ails him. This puts an incredible amount of pressure on the parents to provide a context in which every good trait is perfectly cultivated, and every negative one inhibited, or even eliminated altogether.

But this is where the Christian understanding of the fallen nature of man is such a help. We know that children are born as sinners. Sin isn’t just an action; it’s a condition — one that none of us can escape (Romans 3:9–12, 23). Even in the most loving, encouraging, rewarding, and earnest families, we can expect that our children will lie, cheat, steal, and be mean just as their parents will surely be irritable, selfish, lazy, and inattentive. Not the majority of the time (we hope!), but it will happen nonetheless.

Yet we are not undone by these failures. Instead we are invigorated by the grace that God in Christ has for us (Romans 5:1–5). And that grace doesn’t encourage us to be less like the parents we are called to be, but energizes us to be more like them (Romans 6:1–2). Grace is the engine that drives God-glorifying parenting.

2. We don’t want to lose respect and authority with our children.

In one sense, they are afraid that by admitting wrong, they will lose credibility, authority, or respect with their children. Without a doubt, parents need to have authority over their children (Ephesians 6:1–3). Kids who don’t respect their parents tend to have problems with healthy boundaries in every area of life. But having credibility, authority, and respect is not the same as being inerrant.

Admitting our faults is not tantamount to admitting incompetence. In fact, the opposite is generally true. The more we are willing to own our mistakes and seek forgiveness, the more our children find us to be trustworthy authorities in their lives. They already know we’ve messed up; now they need to know that we can take responsibility. Plus, if we present ourselves as being without error, when our children know definitively that it isn’t true, then what will they think when we present God’s word as being without error?

3. We feel the pain of owning that we’ve hurt and disappointed our children.

Watching our loved ones hurt is bad enough on its own, but to know you caused that pain stings like nothing else. It’s easy and convenient to pretend that our failures never occurred in the first place — but it’s not healthy. Actions and consequences are integrally tied together.

As Paul tells the Thessalonians, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Not having food is the consequence for not working, and hunger pangs provide pretty good incentive for employment perseverance. Likewise, watching tears in our children’s eyes as we admit our mistakes provides pretty good incentive for high-quality parenting perseverance. Beyond this, the discomfort our children experience as we confess and repent is the sort that tends to heal rather than wound. It helps them to make sense of the world and provides grounds for forgiveness, rather than soil for roots of bitterness.

Let Your Failures Point to Another

As strange as it may seem, there is a reason to be encouraged when we fail. Admittedly it’s not much encouragement at the time, but when we fail it’s a chance to model for our children what secure repentance looks like. A repentance that’s not afraid to hear how we’ve hurt them. A repentance that doesn’t recoil from the words, “I’m sorry” or, “Please forgive me.” A repentance that is cause for tears in our eyes, but hope in our hearts.

That is a skill that our children desperately need modeled for them. How are they, as spouses, supposed to admit when they are wrong if they don’t hear it from us? How are they, as parents, supposed to own their mistakes if they don’t see it in us? How are they, as Christians, supposed to throw themselves on the free offer of the gospel if they don’t experience us doing the same?

Coming to terms with our own failure is never easy. Admitting it to those we’ve failed can be even harder. Yet it provides an amazing opportunity to live out the gospel for our children in a way that nothing else can.